Chapter 1

1.   A New Threat

 

CoverVarik Tojen was as unmoving as the granite walls, his stern face fixed into an emotionless glare directed at an empty helm on the nearby wall, as raindrops pinged and splashed off the metal. For a moment he lost himself as the small scene filled his mind in an ever narrowing spiral of focus, forcing out all thoughts. The troubles and issues of commanding a besieged castle had been large, but now the smallest splash flying off a raindrop was as enormous and all-encompassing as the universe itself.

It was calming to clear the mind in such a way, but the shuffling of boots and a polite cough soon intruded. His ineffectual captains standing impatiently nearby reminded him of the invasion, of the attackers from over the seas who were trying to kill his soldiers. His responsibility for those soldiers was reason enough to concentrate, but forcing himself back to the here and now brought other, more personal matters back to mind with a grinding harshness that never seemed to fade. He knew if he dwelt on this he would feel the cloud over his mind grow until it became a rain storm and then a deluge to drown him. He shrugged mentally, striving to put aside things he couldn’t change, to force his focus towards matters he could affect, where he could make a difference.

Surfacing from the dark waters of his brooding, Tojen straightened his back, standing taller than his captains as he searched for positive facts. His men were holding with only a few losses and were expected to do so indefinitely in this fearsome fortress that plugged the bottleneck of the Hurriden Pass, and barred the attacking Dogmen from the great Empire of Searleddon. The Dogmen had long been considered only a negligible threat and so far the disorganised attacks confirmed this, having only limited effect. It was telling that they would throw their lives away rushing up to the walls to shoot their crude crossbows, all the while being cut down by a hail of arrows from the highly-trained soldiers who benefited from both higher ground and cover. He was not going to jump to conclusions though, this was early in the assault and he had been watching for indications as to why the invaders were so incongruously confident.

“You think we can hold don’t you Commander?” asked Captain Villit, one of the five accompanying the Commander on his rounds and the youngest of them all.

“We can hold,” was all Tojen said. That was too short a response even for the terse Captain Gustrew, a short stocky middle-aged man not known for his cheery disposition who now seemed to feel the need to elaborate, a very rare situation.

“Of course we can hold against this mob,” said Gustrew, “and even against the inevitable siege engines. It’s their wildminds that may prove a little —”

“Wildminds? They have sorcerers?” interrupted Villit.

“I’ve heard the Dogmen practice unnatural magic; mind-control of dogs for a start, they’re not just named for their dog-shaped helms you know.”

“But I thought that was a rumour, and anyway it’s not right, it’s uncontrollable, and against the law.”

“Hah! Lad, it may be outlawed here but not across the sea where those barbarians come from, they might be shipping boatloads of wildminds over here as we speak.” Gustrew smiled wickedly, enjoying winding up the younger man.

“But sir,” Villit was addressing Tojen whilst looking rather disbelievingly at Gustrew, “such magic is recognised as wild and evil across all lands is it not? I know that traders from the Western Isles and the eastern continent see it just as we do. Surely the Dogmen can’t think to triumph against the great Empire of Searleddon using something so uncontrollable?” Gustrew smiled at what he saw as Villit’s naivety, while the Commander almost chose not to reply, being unable to think of a reassuring response for the young man. Then he decided that reality should not be hidden from this earnest soldier.

“Yes Captain,” said Tojen, “there have been rumours of wildminds among the Dogmen, even that they can control the wildness of the magic and that might explain why they think they have any hope of success in attacking us here. There has been a report of a crossbow bolt achieving impossible range and accuracy. It was suggested  that this was due to the guidance of a dark robed Dogman. Unlikely on the face of it I know, but this lone crossbow-man and the robed character were reported to be clearly seen, although still well out of our bow-range. A test, or perhaps a demonstration.” This caused all the captains to pause and reflect.

Rain dripped down the Commander’s muscular neck and back as he looked at Villit and continued, “And although the armies of the Empire are numerous they are widely spread and only trained for dealing with local troubles, not a full war. The Church may be strident in their declamations about wildminds but their soldiers are even fewer and trained more for interrogation and suppression. With that in mind you may think it prudent for the Empire to dispatch reinforcements here, but I am afraid our esteemed rulers won’t do anything at all until they are absolutely convinced that it is not only necessary but unavoidable. More than a few hundred souls will have to be lost before they think that.” Seeing he had the glum attention of not just Villit but his other captains as well, Tojen continued with a level voice, suppressing a sigh and trying to fall back to imparting facts rather than dour opinions, but realising as he spoke that he gave no reassurance. “Currently the Government in Espondre hasn’t even acknowledged that the Empire is being attacked despite two birds and two riders being dispatched over the previous few days.”

“You paint a gloomy picture Commander,” said Captain Horlon. He stood as usual with Captain Blare, two haughty and disdainful minor nobles who rarely contributed much on these occasions, as if they wanted the inconvenience over with as soon as possible and any contribution of theirs would only prolong it.

“We must be positive,” said Tojen, “but let’s also be realistic, even our Duke and Duchess Kinsonay who can see and hear the attack with their own eyes and ears are trying to ignore it, expecting us to just deal with it without making a fuss.”

Tojen fell silent, not wanting to voice all that was on his mind. Even if the Empire rescinded its ban on wildmind magic to enable them to fight back more effectively, as a consequence of their long-term policy there were no people capable of magic left. They had all been burnt.

The pompous Captain Lulsteddian had been frowning deeply and waiting for a chance to have his say: “Who needs such vile magic? We are better off without it. History shows that wildminds always lost control and caused untold death and ruin. The Church tells us they were evil, against the will of the Gods and would never attain the afterlife. It is absolutely unnecessary anyway, the Empire is strong and secure, with no threat to its power and wealth. Clearly such a robust and prosperous nation does not require any additional power and anyone pursuing it would obviously only be doing so for selfish reasons, for personal gain. Peaceful and profitable trade is the norm to both east and west with people almost as civilised as us, leaving only the barbarous Dogmen to the northeast.”

The other officers listened to the verbose Captain Lulsteddian without comment and wearing impassive faces, while the man himself smiled condescendingly as he delivered his wisdom. He was well connected and hugely wealthy, and Tojen imagined that the conceited noble was revelling in how splendid he looked in his highly polished breast-plate, finely etched with family mottoes of glory and honour. Tall with magnificent blond hair, he had a painstakingly crafted beard which failed to mask a weak and puffy face, rather like his armour failed to hide a weak body sorely in need of regular training. It was surprising that the rain did not dampen his sense of self-importance, but doubtless he had plenty of servants to lay out clean clothes and to polish his armour.

The invaders lost dozens to the hail of arrows from the skilled archers but killed only a few defenders before turning away again. It required years to train good bowmen whereas the Dogmen had mass-produced crossbows that could be used to fair effect by almost anyone and their losses were not unduly damaging. None of the attacks thus far had any real commitment behind them, the attackers were just testing while unloading ships onto the wide beach facing the castle. They were certainly showing a careless disinterest in the value of the lives they were wasting, or perhaps it was impatience and poor discipline between their clans. It was completely unprecedented for them to be so organised as to group into one strong and unified force rather than be defined by their customary clan divisions. If the immediate threat was not great, this still represented the most coherent attack from outside that the Empire had faced in living memory. That fact alone was troubling. What was particularly unsettling to Tojen was that some of the defenders, most notably some of his captains, were already making the mistake of thinking that such barbarians posed no threat.

Tojen’s emotions had improved from earlier, with bleakness being supplanted by determination, but now anger was gradually taking over. Then he felt something else, a niggling feeling of approaching danger. Looking up and out over the battlements he saw a crowd of Dogmen with their dark crossbows, currently all out of range, but two stood out to him. One was lifting his weapon while one behind him in dark robes had raised empty hands and displayed a fierce concentration, somehow notable even from this great distance. The clumsy crossbow released its deadly bolt and Tojen knew from experience that it had neither the reach nor the accuracy to threaten him or any on the walls. And yet he stood transfixed, watching as it veered subtly to the side, watching as instead of falling it continued in a gravity-defying line, watching as it sped directly towards him. Fast though the bolt flew, Tojen saw all this and stepped aside shouting a warning. But even he did not have time to do more, there was no time to push aside the men behind him on the battlements. The bolt shot past, narrowly missing Tojen, its flight, though weakened by the extra distance, remained strong enough to pierce the neck of a soldier approaching with a message. It was not clear if the look of utter shock on his face was due to the pain or the sudden spraying of his life’s blood as he fell. Tojen knelt by the fallen man grasping his hand and meeting his eyes, watching as awareness faded and blood washed away in the rain.

~

The next day dawned bright and clear giving the defenders a crisp view of the scale of the invasion, facilitated by an endless supply of shoddy ships that narrowly survived the rough grey seas to spew numberless and faceless Dogmen soldiers onto the beach. Teams of men unloaded large amounts of timber that were piled on the beach just out of range of the defender’s arrows and trebuchets. This day brought a new development, several large cages were offloaded as the sounds of barking and howling drifted towards the castle and the watchers on the walls.

Tojen observed the stark contrast between the two sides with interest. The castle and walls of Hurriden were hard and precise lines of grey immoveable granite. The straight lines of disciplined soldiers on those walls were resplendent in their uniforms of sea blue tunics overlaid with polished mail shirts and silver helms, the officers in a deeper blue with gleaming plate armour. Whereas the Dogmen unloading on the beach clearly aspired to demonstrate the virtue of disorder. Their soldiers were shabby in their mismatched clothing and limited armour, they formed no orderly lines of attack and displayed a conspicuous lack of discipline. Perhaps it is the way of the universe that chaos always attacks order, seeking to equalise just this type of disparity.

The Commander again made his daily rounds with his captains who were mostly surly and quiet apart from Lulsteddian, who today was complaining tediously about the awful smell drifting in with the normally fresh sea breeze. Tojen knew he would receive no recognition or reward for having an unusually competent city guard, despite the uninspiring batch of captains he had to work with, most of whom were not appointed by him but held their rank due to aristocratic connections and politics rather than military merit. Most Empire soldiers had become fit only for ceremony, pomp and parade, but he took some quiet satisfaction from watching the relatively disciplined defence of the castle. Discipline was something he could give them after all, although perhaps it was only a sheen of polish that barely covered the underlying rot of complacent inexperience.

Varik Tojen’s hard face displayed no emotion as walked the outermost walls to reassure himself all was in order and because it was good for the men to see him, not to mention good for the captains to be watched. Captains they may be but they were not committed soldiers, the few small rebellions and sundry skirmishes that marred the Empire’s record of unending peace were beneath these minor nobles who acquired promotion, rank and higher position simply by biding their time in the military whilst playing the court games. They were untested in war, the only test that Tojen considered of any real merit.

The youngest of the captains was the earnest Villit, he was slim and blond and the only one that Tojen had hopes for. It was unusual to find a young officer promoted for noble family connections who turned out to be conscientious and reasonably capable, and so he wanted to make the most of this remarkable exception. At the opposite end of the competence spectrum was the bombastic Lulsteddian, that he was a favourite relative of the Duchess Kinsonay was the only reason for his position as a captain. He had no experience, talent, or ability in Tojen’s view.

Right now Lulsteddian had stopped moaning and was giving Villit the benefit of his doubtful wisdom. “Do not be a-feared young man, the Empire is magnificently strong as indeed is this mighty fortress and with such a plenitude of earnest soldiers under the astute leadership of our splendid Duke, I have a sufficiency of confidence in an embarrassing failure for the unscrupulous and malodorous barbarian invaders.” He followed this with a benign and rather patronising smile for all to enjoy.

Captain Gustrew was shaking his head, “By the Gods man! Must you insist on using ten words for every one that a normal man would use?”

“Merely expressing myself unambiguously,” replied Lulsteddian, “there, that was only… four words!”

“Just speak plainly before I get too irritated and have to make you.”

“Well excuse me if my vocabulary is a little too extensive or substantial for you my dear —”

“That will do gentlemen,” interrupted Tojen “let us put our minds to the wildmind risk shall we? Villit mentioned some expert long-range bowmen, I want to hold them in reserve so that the reach of our normal archers is clearly established in the enemy’s minds. But I want them close to hand at all times so that if we are threatened by wildminds we may have a chance to take one or two out before they pull back.”

Villit looked up “I can see to that sir, they are in a new squad of elite archers under Sergeant Petern, we only have a few but with their new long-bows and extensive training they can hit a man’s chest at three hundred yards from the walls.” Tojen nodded and as they walked on silently he noted the lack of contributions to the discussion from the other four captains.

The invaders were not a seafaring nation and viewed ships as a simple means to an end, almost a necessary evil; evidenced by a preponderance of vessels that were big, simple, inelegant, and not especially seaworthy. A few were lost even in this relatively short crossing but dozens did make it, landing more and more of the stocky barbarians. As they watched, one or two more impressive ships were seen which were entirely different in style, presumably built by others and either bought or stolen. It was the why behind this that worried Tojen, perhaps they carried people they didn’t want to risk losing at sea, such as leaders or wildminds.

Captain Villit pointed, trying to look calmer than he felt. Another wave of attackers surged forward, the mass of the army all clothed in a jumble of dark colours, a hodgepodge of crude assorted armour but all with matching helms fashioned like snarling dog heads. They were moving slowly towards bow range. With a nod, Commander Tojen dismissed the captains to their stations and soon arrows started to sweep down, cutting into the advancing foe. The Dogmen soldiers quickly had their crossbows up to return the barrage. The mighty trebuchets of Hurriden joined in the defence, each rock smashing into the hordes of Dogmen crushing several with each shot.

Tojen felt calm and unafraid, confident that the crossbow bolts would not touch him as he walked along the front of the battlements and past a few casualties among his men. Near to the central gateway he noticed the sergeant directing archers, a tall and confident young woman.

“Good day Sergeant Petern”

“Good day sir, the wind isn’t too bad today and we seem to be doing some damage.”

“Well done Sergeant. I’m looking forward to surprising the enemy with your elite archers that Captain Villit tells me about, how goes their training?”

“Very well sir, the others have started calling them the Longshots and —” Tojen silenced her with a gesture and a look as he felt an awareness of a new threat. Not a fear like other men had felt about the bolts coming out of the crowds of Dogmen to kill or maim, he simply knew some new peril was coming. His gaze was drawn to the attackers grouped just out of arrow range where he saw three men in black robes, spaced out along the front, each flanked by a pair of what looked like elite guards. He knew he was about to witness more proof that they did indeed have wildminds. It really was starting to explain some of their confidence in attacking Hurriden, an intimidating stronghold designed to be both a formidable monument and a potent barrier to invasion. Up here in the mountainous northeast this was the only accessible route into the Empire without traversing hundreds of miles through some of the most treacherous seas. The imposing walls swept across the valley facing the bay, with three magnificent towers each crowned by a majestic trebuchet able to cast destruction down the river almost as far as the sea. Building the castle had been a massive investment, undertaken some six hundred or so years ago as a substantial overreaction to the last attempted incursion.

Tojen continued to look for the source of his unease as an unusual howl signalled the crossbowmen to bunch up leaving three clear pathways to the walls. Their siege engines were still being constructed on the beach but now he could see what looked like long crude ladders, held by men cowering under a simple shielding structure almost like a giant turtle’s shell. He was aware of Petern studying his face from the side but he knew she would see no trace of fear or worry, just curiosity and an impatience to act.

~

Marn was proud to be a Gazim, a powerful mage of the Wolf Lord and one of the three black-robed Dogmen standing calmly in the field facing the walls. They were the first to openly display their powers to the poor people foolishly standing in the way of the greatness that was to come. He focussed his will, remembering the practiced words and gestures, confident in his role, now with arms raised dramatically. He knew the Wolf Lord was pleased with him as he had not just the ability to control the pack but also to deflect or guide arrows, such double skill being rare. Concentrating and focusing his thoughts he attained the state of mind needed, the feeling of calm joy came easily to him as he imagined his success in front of the great Wolf Lord. Now he would show everyone his power! The signal sounded and near each of the Gazim a small group of men started to lumber forward under their shell of wood covered with hide and with a rough, long and steep ramp fixed to the top of it. As soon as they were in bow range the defenders peppered them and even sent some fire arrows, but Marn brought his will to bear and managed to deflect many of the shots from hitting the ramp in front of him. Furthermore the shields were thick and the hides soaked in seawater. Two out of the three ramps easily reached the walls with the loss of only a few bearers, the third ramp fell as their Gazim failed to deflect enough arrows.

As well as appeasement to the impatient clan chiefs who wanted to throw every man at the walls continually, this was really only an experiment as this style of attack had never been tried before. It was one of the many ideas the Wolf Lord had brought the Dogmen and Marn wanted to excel, knowing he was being watched.

With his ramp in place Marn now shifted his mental focus. Ignoring the arrows he reached his thoughts behind him, found the minds of the wolfhounds in their cages and sensed the nervous parting of soldiers, which left a clear line to the walls. He signalled and the handlers opened the cage as he grasped the mind of the pack. The ten wolfhounds were beautiful and wondrous to him, bred for size, power, ferocity and speed, though not for intelligence. That was his role. He gloried in the sudden rush of awareness as his mind enfolded the pack, the richness of so much sight, sound and smell was overwhelming and he struggled to keep his own mind and will intact as he drove the snarling fury towards the ramp, the walls and fresh meat. He whipped their thoughts to a passionate wrath of hate and hunger, he sent into their small minds the images of people to kill and eat, producing a rage that was unstoppable. This he then merely directed as you might steer a stampede and they lunged rapidly across the battlefield towards the walls, one ripping the arm off a handler as it left the cage.

As arrows ripped into his beasts he felt their pain but in their rage Wolfhoundthey ignored the hurt. It took more than one hit to stop these creatures with their thick hides and strong muscles. Eight of his ten reached the walls and climbed the steep ramp, seven making it to the top, surviving long enough to attack the defenders on the walls. The smaller the remaining number of wolfhounds the more specific and individual control he had and when he got down to the last one he would feel as if he were the mighty hound, seeing the soldiers before him, smelling their fear, tasting their blood. Now he revelled in the savagery of multiple sets of teeth and claws drawing blood, now they would repay the killing of his beautiful creatures tenfold, a hundredfold!

~

Some of the archers on the walls at first noticed the rapidly approaching peril and froze, others stepped back on the battlements. Tojen cursed the lack of battle experience in his troops and gestured to Petern directing her one way as he went the other, shouting directions, orders and encouragement to the archers. He had thought at first these were scaling ladders but as they got closer he could see they were wider and had many rungs placed close together to form crude ramps. The now rushing giant wolfhounds answered the question, these were not ladders for men but ramps for the animals. After a slow start the archers responded effectively but only one ramp was stopped when the shielded bearers were killed, leaving two to be raised and as the beasts neared the wall not enough of them were being stopped! Tojen had ordered a full call to arms and extra men streamed from the barracks proving the worth of his many drills at least.

The nearer the beasts came the bigger and more intimidating they looked. They called the invaders Dogmen because they were said to have been breeding the wild dogs of their land for so long that they had many domesticated varieties. But these approaching now like a rushing nightmare were massive offspring of hounds that had originally been bred to hunt wolves. They were huge, well-muscled and long legged with their heads reaching a man’s chest. Rapidly they closed the distance and loped up the rough ramps, only one or two falling impaled by many shots from the archers. Several made it to the top of the walls and the fact that a few were bristling with arrow shafts did not  slow them much, it only enraged them. Their ferocity was as fearsome as their rage was monstrous, their wicked teeth and long claws bit and slashed to quickly bring death among the archers and swordsmen on the walls.

Tojen saw that Petern was bringing more archers to bear on the incursion nearest her and swordsmen were on their way in numbers led by Villit. But to the south he could see Lulsteddian shouting wildly and waving his sword whilst edging away from seven of the raging beasts as they caused fear and panic. Morale was rapidly breaking and bodies lay bleeding all around. Panicked men wielded their swords defensively as they retreated making them largely ineffective as the blades glanced off thick hide and bunched muscles of the beasts.

Tojen’s decision was quick and his action a blur, with no cry or shout he dashed silently along the wall through his men towards the bloody melee. In front of him a wolfhound ripped the chest of a swordsman, straight through mail, leather and skin causing a spray of blood as the man turned away and fell to his knees, bending forward clutching his chest and screaming. Tojen jumped and pushed off the man’s back, his sword held high as he brought it down hard and fast, two-handed, into the head of the snarling beast. It cleaved through skull and jaw and the hound dropped. A second beast leapt toward him and Tojen thrust his sword upwards point first into the onrushing creature, piercing it through the chest. He was bowled over by its dead weight as the hilt was wrenched from his hand. Rolling up he swerved to the side as a gaping maw full of vicious teeth snapped shut only just missing his face, somehow he already had his belt dagger in his hand and he stabbed it deep into the eye of the beast.

Some of the guards were rallying at the sight of three wolfhounds falling so quickly and as they managed to down one themselves it gave Tojen a chance to regain his sword, pulling it from the animal’s carcass. Lulsteddian was some few paces away shouting wildly but still doing very little. Another giant wolfhound was being brought down by a ring of men who had had the sense to find and use spears, just as the archers stopped another. Two men in front of Tojen were purposely swinging swords at the last one when it lunged and tore the arm off one of them, causing the other man to scream, turn and dash away straight into Tojen as he approached, the helmed head butting him full in the face and knocking him off his feet in a flash of sharp pain. The wolfhound growled and followed, pouncing towards the dazed Commander who, still stunned, moved by battle-instinct as he rolled to the side, twisted and swung his sword low and fast. A claw raked his leg, but the sword connected to the wolf’s ankle causing it to howl and falter. Tojen stood and swung with all his remaining strength and although he missed the intended target of its head as the beast reared up, he nevertheless connected powerfully with its shoulder and the blade bit deeply. Still it stood and menaced Tojen as he stepped back, unable to pull his sword free, but his awareness of imminent danger disappeared a second before a spear was thrust through its side causing it to stagger and fall.

The men nearest Tojen who were not dead or dying were either staring at the tall and fearsome warrior among them in open-mouthed awe, or were cheering him.

Tojen calmly took stock. Both sections of wall had been regained and no more attacks could be seen for the moment. The enemy had sent about thirty of these horrendous animals, losing all of them and the men carrying the shielded ramps. From first estimate he seemed to have lost around three dozen soldiers. Good men and women, most of whom he knew by name, none of them living past this day to return to loved ones. He stood there numbly staring at their bodies, the blood and gore having little effect but the lifeless faces nearly overwhelming him with a deep grief.

Lulsteddian slapped him on the back and beamed gormlessly at him. “Marvellous, we have achieved a fabulous victory! The foul beasts from hell were no match for the mighty and valiant soldiers of the majestic Empire of Searleddon! We defeated them all! For certain they cannot have trained many such beasts so we will have weakened them mortally.”

Tojen stared at him in disbelief and his expression became even harder. “We defeated a test you fool, and with little or no help from you. Think about it man, they didn’t train these wolfhounds, they were directed by those wildminds out there. They merely bred them, probably in such great numbers that they could afford to lose a few whilst the mages remained safe from harm.” He slowly put out a hand and pushed in the centre of Lulsteddian’s chest causing him to take a half step backwards and fall spluttering over the dead wolfhound behind him, crashing sideways in his ornate plate armour. Tojen stormed off, furious with himself for such undisciplined behaviour in front of his soldiers.

~

Out on the field the Gazim named Marn had collapsed, caught by his guards who were trained to watch over his body when his mind was elsewhere. He slowly came round, disorientated at first but then remembering the glorious slaughter that was followed by his wolfhounds being dispatched at such a shocking rate. He remembered the tall commanding figure who earlier had dodged his guided bolt and who had had rushed in with frightening speed and ruthless efficiency to wipe out the remainder of his pack. Yes he remembered him well, both the sight and smell of him.

~

Later, Tojen stood alone on the highest point of the gate tower, overlooking the field of battle as night drew in, accompanied by the rainclouds that so often swept in off the sea. He tried again to put aside dark thoughts and studied the scene in front of him, losing himself in the comparison of the countless raindrops beating relentlessly against the grey steel helms and armour of the soldiers on the walls, to the countless Dogmen throwing themselves Coverunceasingly at the hard, grey granite walls of the castle. Both assaults seemed to swirl around the mountain pass, almost at random it would look to the casual glance, yet both had an underlying and unchanging direction, sweeping in from the sea straight into the faces of the soldiers who were staging an apparently equal denial of both.

Chapter 2 is here.

 

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